Friday, June 29, 2012

How Could an All-Good God Possibly Send People to Hell?

In the video below,  Fr. Robert Barron (a Roman Catholic priest) addresses the question, "How could an all-good God possibly send people to hell?"  I've included a transcript as well.  It's a very helpful summary of Church teaching on a topic that is a stumbling block to many people.

In the course of my work in evangelization, I often run across this objection: how could an all-good God possibly send people to hell?  How could a God who is described as infinitely good, create, sustain, and send people to a place of infinite, horrible torment?  And you find the objection from both believer and non-believers.

In fact a lot of my friends on YouTube have directed my attention to a video done by George Carlin, the comedian, many years ago.  Carlin, I suppose, was an ex-Catholic, and he was lampooning the whole idea of hell.  And he said, 'Well, you know, for some sin - usually of a sexual nature - God will send you into this place of infinite, horrible, tremendous torment.'  But then he changes and he says, 'But of course this God loves you.'  And of course the people all burst into hysterical laughter.  They can't get enough of it.

Now you have to confess, somewhere in your soul you think, well, maybe Carlin's got a point. Is there something just inconsistent about this belief in the eternity of hell?

Well, I would suggest that we should be very careful about dismissing this doctrine, which has been enunciated by all the great theologians of our tradition, and, in fact, goes back to Jesus himself.  On the lips of Jesus himself we find this language of Gehenna and of the everlasting fire.  And so on.

I would say this: the doctrine of hell is a corollary - a kind of a necessary consequence - of two other doctrines.  And I doubt anybody wants to deny these other two.  Namely, that God is love and that we human beings are free.  I think you can't hold those two without also holding the possibility of hell.  And here's why.

Look first at the claim that God is love.  We hold, not that God has love, or that love is one of God's attributes, or love is something God does from time to time.  Love is what God is.  The whole nature, essence, substance, life of God is love.  To will the good of the other as other: that's who God is.  Therefore, God doesn't go in and out of love, doesn't love some, hate others.  He doesn't go into emotional snits and change His mind.  God simply is love.  In Jesus' language, He's like the sun that shines on the good and the bad alike.  There's the idea of the primacy of grace and of God's love which is all through our tradition.  There's the first great teaching.

Now here's the second one: that human beings are free.  God made planets and plants and animals and insects to glorify Him simply by being themselves.  That's how they reflect the divine goodness.  But human beings He made with intelligence and will.  That means He wants us to respond His love - who He is - with our own love. He gave us that privilege of our freedom.  Now the minute you say freedom, you have to say the possibility of the abuse of freedom.  That's the nature of freedom, is I can decide 'yes' or 'no'.  I can say 'yes' to the love that God is and thereby find joy, and peace, and my own deepest purpose. Or, I can say 'no' to it.  I can resist it.

What does that cause, that resistance?  It causes suffering at the level of the soul, the deepest level.  It's like fire, it's like torment, it's like everlasting flames.  Why am I using that language?  Because it's biblical language to suggest this great spiritual suffering.

What is hell?  Hell would be that final and definitive 'no' to God's love uttered from the depth of one's soul.  That's hell.  Eternal suffering?  Yeah, because it's this eternal 'no' to the love that God is.

Now I think in light of this clarification we can see how all the language of God sending people to hell, God condemning people to hell because of their mistakes and so on, is problematic.  God doesn't so much send there; people send themselves into this state by their refusal of a divine love.  That's why C. S. Lewis said, I think wonderfully, 'the door to hell is always locked from the inside.'  It's not as though God is maliciously locking it from the outside, locking people in.  Rather it's people themselves who, by their refusal, lock themselves away from the divine love.  That's what hell would be.

Lewis also said this, and I think it's really interesting, he said, 'the love of God lights up the fires of hell.' I say, what does that mean? How counterintuitive!  But see, love is what God is, that's all God knows how to do.  The love of God is always shining on us.  But if you turn away from it, it becomes a kind of torture to you because you're meant to respond to it.  The very love in which the saint basks in joy is what the sinner suffers in.

Think of it this way.  Imagine a great party is going on - this exuberant, joyful, riotously fun party's going on.  One person is there who is completely surrendered to it.  They've given themselves over to the exuberance of the party, they're having the time of their life.  And now imagine someone at the same party - they've come into the same party, but they are turned in on themselves in a kind of reproachful self-regard, sitting sullenly in the corner.  For that person, the very exuberance of the party is a torture.  The very exuberance of the party is a source of suffering.

We shouldn't talk about God capriciously sending people to hell.  We should think of hell this way, if anyone's in it.  And by the way, the Church is not obliging anyone to believe that a human being's in hell.  We just don't know.  But if there is anyone in it, it's someone who is absolutely insistent on not attending the party.


BC said...

Interesting to see the Lewis quotes - his profoundly Augustinian treatment of hell in 'The Great Divorce' remains a soberly beautiful reflection on the issue, still of great value for apologetics and evangelisation.

Bryan Owen said...

Well put, BC.

Lately I've seen C. S. Lewis quoted approvingly by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians. Perhaps that serves as a reminder that, at its best, Anglicanism embodies the core of what Thomas C. Oden calls Classic Christianity.

The Underground Pewster said...

I guess the argument would go down the path to say that a God that is Love would not allow His creation to make such a bad choice as to deny him.